So how can I describe The Tree of Life. To start, let me preface this with some things. First, I saw this several month ago on DVD and have not seen it since (if I never see this movie again, it will be too damn soon). Second, I have only seen one other Terrence Malick movie in my life and loved it (The New World…judge me however you want in terms of knowledge on Malick). And three, I saw this alongside director Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. So now that we’ve got that out of the way….I fucking hated this movie! Sure, part of it is it’s a pretentious art film and thus not my taste…but another part of it is that it’s a douchey art film that hipsters want to say they understand and its super cool. I understood it…and it was stupid as hell so don’t start with the “You just didn’t get it” oh I did. The only reason this was nominated was because the Academy voters want to be cool, plain and simple.
Young Jack (Hunter McCracken) is a boy growing up in the 1950s under the domineering gaze of his father Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and an extremely naive mother (Jessica Chastain). When Jack grows up (played by Sean Penn) he tries to reconcile his life as a child with the life he’s led now.
As mentioned above I saw this alongside Melancholia and both films discuss our place in the universe, the existence (or in Melancholia’s case the lack of) a God, and the beginning/end of the world. Where von Trier discussed his film from an atheist angle, Malick is definitely exploring things from a Christian angle. Generally, I have no issues with discussing God in film, but with von Trier’s film you’re forced to find a position on God by the end of the movie. Either you accept events as they are and feel insignificant or reaffirm faith in a higher power. I enjoyed having that choice and that position. With Malick you’re forced to choke down his rhetoric that God is in everything and why do bad things happen and why are we here. With Malick he doesn’t answer the question and also doesn’t leave you to discuss or draw any conclusions.
With Melancholia I hated it upon first viewing, and I haven’t watched that since as well. But where it differs from Tree of Life is I recall about 80% of the movie, I can discuss it, and understand the movie. I’m still able to have discussions about it and come to a greater respect for it. With Tree of Life I remember a few of the 1950s sequences and Sean Penn riding a damn elevator for two hours. The movie is so silent or told in whispers that if your eyes aren’t riveted to the screen you’re completely lost. At 139 minutes the movie is way too long and goes into sequences involving the creation of the world, close-ups on stuff in nature or people’s hands. It’s an art movie and each scene looks like a beautiful painting but fuck is it boring.
The 1950s have been told in numerous movies and yes we all know women lived lives of quiet desperation and men were searching for their masculinity. But here Chastain’s character is an utter doormat who whispers platitudes about grace and nature while Pitt screams at his sons. The children themselves have some bizarre coming-of-age and I’m still not quite sure if they’re saying something about young Jack and his….close relationship with his mother.
I never want to see this movie again. It’s boring, it’s pretentious, and it’s Malick smirking in the corner as you sit through 139 minutes of narration. In many ways it’s the quintessential Malick film, but I enjoyed The New World so go figure.
Grade: F (yes I just did that)
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.